Monday, August 06, 2018

Too Young To Die - Bryan Cox


On 1 July 2018, well-known New Zealand pilot Bryan Cox made headlines when he flew a Tiger Moths he had flown in wartime training. He had only just returned to active flying several months earlier, having relinquished his licence some years before with more than 20,000 hours to his credit. For a veteran to be reunited with a former mount, and still be able to fly it legally, is particularly rare. To some extent, Mr. Cox has youth on his side. That’s a funny thing to say for a 93-year old, but he was eighteen when he learned to fly and not even 21 when he saw the war’s end. What makes him ‘well-known’, however, beyond being a living link to our past, is the books he has written. His air force memoir, Too Young To Die, remains one of the very few accounts of RNZAF Corsairs, or any Kiwi fighters for that matter, in action in the South Pacific. It also makes the author’s choice of post-war career abundantly clear.

Bryan Cox grew up on farming properties and was still at school when war broke out. When he signed up for the air force, having emulated Tiger Moth flying in a Model A Ford with the top down and pining over diving Kittyhawks, three of his cousins had already been lost (and he would lose his brother in early 1944). Young Cox soloed in November 1943 and was posted to 4 OTU at Ohakea to fly Kittyhawks in August 1944. His talent in the air is evident, but what is really interesting is the scientific approach to the training. His time on Kittyhawks, in particular, was one of experimentation, analysis and the testing of theories developed on the ground. Some of the experimentation was a result of seeing his colleagues come to grief, fatally on occasion, and wanting to understand what got them into that situation and, most importantly, how to get out of it. While he escaped major incidents, the author had his fair share of close shaves and learned from them.

A mere month after converting to Kittyhawks, Bryan converted to Corsairs. While a heavy, powerful fighter like the Curtiss machine, the Corsair was a completely new challenge. Likening the climb to the cockpit as something only surpassed by Sir Edmund Hillary some years later (one of many amusing quips throughout the book), the ever studious Cox quickly got to grips with one of the most potent fighter aircraft of the period. Again, the exuberance of young men flying the leading technology of the day got the better of some of his colleagues, but the majority of them made it through. As part of 16 Squadron RNZAF, Bryan arrived at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, in November 1944.

The New Zealanders were well established at Henderson, but the relatively Spartan island life, despite the advantages of operating alongside the always well-supplied Americans, took some getting used to. They were soon off to Green Island, however. The author injured his knee with a machete, and was unable to walk for ten days, so his first flight from Green Island did not occur until 5 January 1945. It was the beginning of a very busy year.

Operations from Green Island consisted of many patrols over the Rabaul area to harrass the Japanese there. Aircraft were inevitably lost over the heavily defended harbour and it was on return from a failed rescue mission for one of these pilots that Bryan had what was easily his closest shave with death. The weather closed in on the returning Corsairs and the author, in trying to see his instruments in the gloom, managed to switch off his battery and, therefore, his lights and radio. Somehow avoiding other aircraft in the formation, and the sea, Bryan, noting his dwindling fuel, was contemplating his impending death when a fortuitous lightning flash revealed the distinctive coastline of Green Island. A ropey landing saw him home, but eight of his compatriots were lost. It was Cox’s twentieth birthday.

His first tour over, Bryan returned to New Zealand in mid-February, but the squadron was on its way to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) on 1 April. They were there for less than a month before heading to Bougainville. The island was still partly occupied by the Japanese who were fending off a large Australian Army contingent. The squadron soon established a routine of close support sorties to assist the advancing Australians. Targets were rarely obvious so intelligence often came from coastwatchers, locals or RAAF Boomerangs. These aircraft often marked the targets for the Kiwi Corsairs as well. Bryan’s tour ended in late June after 34 operational sorties over Bougainville.

After leave, reforming and working up, the squadron arrived at Jacquinot Bay, New Britain, on 14 August. This new base was the replacement for Green Island. With the surrender of the Japanese, there was little to do, but the Corsairs kept flying with patrols, ferry flights and escorts of Japanese aircraft. Entertainment was sparse, so it was with some relief that Bryan headed for home in late October. He’s application to join the Occupation Squadron in Japan had not been successful so he said farewell to the faithful Corsair to await his discharge.

This was not forthcoming, however, as he joined 14 Squadron which was to be the headquarters unit for the occupying Commonwealth air strength. Besides learning new combat tactics, such as rocket attacks, the squadron also had to be proficient at ceremonial drill. Japan was to be an eye-opener for the young man, only just promoted to warrant officer, and a lot different from the airstrips hacked out of jungle and coral.

Everything the soon to be self-sustaining squadron needed was loaded onto the aircraft carrier HMS Glory in early March 1946. Bryan did not fly in Japan until late May, but the real adventure was on the ground. Relations with the locals, many of whom worked for the occupying units, are fascinating to discover after so many years of war. The occupying forces, too, while largely respectful of their hosts and dedicated to the work at hand, certainly enjoyed themselves. It’s an interesting dynamic as these men volunteered to serve a long way from home in peacetime when there must have been a strong urge to just stop. As a (still) very young man, it is clear Bryan felt he just wasn’t ready to quit. Returning to New Zealand in April 1947, Bryan struggled to settle down, but eventually started flying again in 1956, worked in air traffic control and set up his own flying school.

There’s perhaps three major points that stand out in Too Young To Die. Firstly, as mentioned above, it is an uncommon memoir of flying for the RNZAF in the South Pacific. Secondly, the considerable detail of life in Japan, essentially a well put together series of extended anecdotes, is rarer still. Happily, it takes up about a third of the book and should be regarded as one of the most important accounts from that interesting, slightly bizarre, period. It is the perfect foil for the wartime operational life the author lived. The description of Japanese culture, stripped of so much, yet holding tight to tradition (perhaps the best way to start afresh), and their almost non-plussed acceptance of the occupying forces, at least as largely recounted here, is the unsung hero of this book. Yes, get excited about the operational Corsair flying over the Pacific islands, but revel in the almost unique account of life in post-war Japan. Finally, the author’s natural aptitude as a teacher, and his career as a flying instructor, permeates almost every page. Be it a Tiger Moth, Kittyhawk or Corsair, if Bryan is learning something new as part of a course, testing a theory that is very much not part of a course, or simply explaining a routine flight, operational or otherwise, his years of instructing take over. Not a word is wasted. At one stage in my notes I’ve written “Okay, Bryan, what are you going to teach me now?” and that’s exactly what it’s like. The man is a natural storyteller which, I reckon, combined with his flying abilities and innate understanding of aeronautics, gleaned from theory and much experimentation, makes him a superb writer and effective teacher. Too Young To Die is not unique in this aspect, but, again, it is uncommon.

He knows what the reader wants too. His childhood is kept very brief with enough there to pique an interest, but avoiding the extended ‘family tree’ that can often bog down an otherwise excellent book early on. These sections are valuable to know where a man has come from, and they can make for fascinating reading, but are often more suited to the appendices. Speaking of which, there are four here of the biographical and airframe fate type. The one negative is that there is no index. Even a simple personnel index would have been of considerable value here, but the biographical appendix allays this deficiency somewhat. This, however, is a minor blip for a book that is now over thirty years old. The narrative is repetitive here and there with little factoids about ops and other details popping up again, but with so many sorties blending into each other, it’s necessary to reiterate aspects of the ones that stand out.

Bryan Cox is a treasure and I hope he is regarded as such beyond the aviation community in New Zealand. His gift to many has been the effective, almost unassuming, transfer of his knowledge of what it takes to be an aviator. Not just a pilot, an aviator. His audience is not limited to those sitting next to him in the cockpit. With Too Young To Die, and his other books, he has passed this wisdom, to a lesser extent, but no less clear, on to thousands of readers. No doubt some of those readers will have never controlled an aircraft themselves. With luck, Bryan’s writing has stirred something in a few of them and they’ve caught the bug, be it the bug for aviation history, the bug for flying, or both. That is what we, as aircrew book enthusiasts, all hope these books can do. Those of us with groaning bookshelves and long-suffering, but understanding partners, are already converted. We will love and respect these books, and the men within, almost unconditionally. It is the casual reader, the occasional reader, the aviation novice, that we always dream these books will capture. He may not have set out to entrance the non-enthusiast, but Bryan’s natural talent certainly makes it possible. While not a fighter ace, he survived and then took the time to record how he did. His legacy, and his legend, continues to make headlines. What a man. What a book.

ISBN 0-8138-0205-9

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